COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Pictured is the Three Rivers Fire Department Tuesday. The fire department is currently facing a number of issues shared by departments across the country, including staffing shortages, slightly lower morale, and wage pressure from outside entities.

TR Fire Department faces staffing issues, 'wage pressure' amid national shortage

THREE RIVERS — Firefighters and EMTs are used to struggles and danger as part of their jobs on a daily basis. Putting out fires and saving people’s lives is something they do every day to keep the community safe.

However, the Three Rivers Fire Department is currently going through struggles firefighters and EMTs aren’t quite used to having, and they are struggles that aren’t just felt within southwest Michigan.

TRFD is one of numerous departments nationwide that has been experiencing the effects of a nationwide shortage of both firefighters and paramedics, leading to more overtime hours, people leaving the department, and a slight decrease in morale overall, according to International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3102 President Chad Witt and Secretary/Treasurer Nicholas Abbate, both TRFD firefighters.

“It’s not just necessarily our fire department, it’s nationwide. It really started before COVID, COVID accelerated it, but there’s a massive paramedic shortage in the country, and it really hits departments like us very hard, because it’s difficult to compete,” Abbate said. “I think this is probably the lowest number of paramedics we’ve had in my 12-year career, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain quality paramedics.”

Witt, as well as TRFD Chief Paul Schoon, said since the beginning of 2022, the department has lost four firefighter/EMTs from a full staff of 14 due to resignations, almost a third of their staff, including former fire chief Jeff Bloomfield. While Schoon said they have been able to replace some of them – he said the department is down to just one or two open positions – it has been overall a small pool to hire from.

“It's been really hard to hire. Back when I started there were 60 applicants for one position, and now we're lucky to get four or five,” Schoon said.

A number of factors were stated by Abbate, Witt and Schoon as causes for the shortage in the local area, most of all the overall stress the job can cause and higher wages in other communities and businesses.

“A lot of people I think want bigger departments with more experience, and just trying to keep people here and stay competitive with everybody, it’s really hard to do for us lately with the kind of pay right now,” Witt said. “It’s hard when people can come into our organization and then leave and go 20 miles down the road and make a significant amount more money, regardless if it’s private or full time, fire or EMS.”

Two factors that have led to the wage pressure in the department have been Beacon Health’s ambulance service, which came into the area when Beacon Health took over Three Rivers Health and services transfers only, and Sturgis Fire Department’s new ambulance service, which Schoon said both pay a significant amount more than TRFD does.

“Right now, the biggest reason people are leaving is because of wages. Our competition out there has really increased wages quite a bit. Sturgis increased wages for their medics by 16 percent with bringing their ambulance in. They had a negotiation with their union and were able to get 16 percent, which put them considerably higher than our guys,” Schoon said. “We've had Beacon come in for their transport service and their starting wage was considerably high for a medic. That's actually a lot less work over there, because you're looking at a few hundred transfers per year versus our 3,600 calls a year. It's a big difference.”

Schoon estimates Sturgis’ fire department pays about $20,000 more per year than Three Rivers does, while Beacon Health pays between $8 and $11 more per hour, based on the annual $48,494 wage for TRFD firefighters/EMTs.

“That's what's hurting us, that type of stuff,” Schoon aid.

To that, Witt said there have been EMTs at the fire department that have been “moonlighting” with Beacon on days they have off from their jobs to earn some more money on the side, something he said the department is okay with, and that they know TRFD ultimately comes first.

“We had to get approval that members understood that this [the fire department] is their job and this is their 100 percent commitment. Anything outside of this place has to come second, and it’s been that way since the beginning. No one has ever called off to go work at Beacon. It’s always been TRFD first, and if, say, I have a day off and I choose to go over there, that’s my deal,” Witt said. “It has to be on days off. Nothing’s done that affects this. If you have overtime at TR, that comes first. If I have a four-day stretch off and I know I have no overtime, and if they choose to go work, they go work. It’s no different than any side job.”

Recently, the issue of moonlighting was made into a bit of an issue by Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry, when he talked about it during a May 10 city commission meeting. He stated his belief that moonlighting at Beacon “helps destroy us” financially, due to Beacon getting revenue from transfers. Abbate said that was “100 percent not the case.”

“These guys aren’t moonlighting to end the department, they’re going there to make good money with less stress,” Abbate said. “It’s a 12-hour shift where they may run two to three calls. Our members are not trying to kill the service we provide to our citizens. That is completely untrue.”

Schoon expanded on that, saying Three Rivers Health gives TRFD the first right of refusal for transfers that don’t go to any of Beacon’s other hospitals in Indiana, and if there are no ambulances available at TRFD for transfers, they ask Beacon’s ambulance to do a transfer. However, because the fire department sometimes runs three people per shift instead of four to alleviate some of the extra hours the firefighter/EMTs are working, it’s eliminated the department from being able to do some of those transfers since they need four people on a shift to do so.

“Obviously, if we can't do that transfer, that's revenue we lose and the transfer business pays considerably better than 911,” Schoon aid.

Overall, both Abbate and Schoon said Beacon being in Three Rivers has been “beneficial” to the community, mainly for patient care and mutual aid for the fire department. From Abbate’s perspective, he said while it may be a “possibility” that Beacon taking some potential transfers away may cost the department money, he noted TRFD didn’t take all of Three Rivers Health’s transfers pre-Beacon either.

“Even if you look at the years prior to Beacon, we didn’t take all of TRH’s transfers. Obviously, that’s become increasingly difficult for us to accommodate all the transfers because we’re short staffed,” Abbate said. “Of course, there’s the potential to take a hit, but we have the hospital’s word that they’ll call us and give us first right of refusal for a transfer with the exception of transfers that go to their facilities.”

Overtime hours have been another concern in the fire department. Schoon estimated that many of his firefighter/EMTs end up with between 200 and 700 hours of forced overtime a year, on top of the nearly 2,700 hours they get per year based on 24-hour shifts. Because of how busy the fire department is – Witt estimated 2021 was “the most calls we’ve ever run” – the amount of demand, plus the amount of overtime, the subsequent resignations and the staffing issues, it led to a bit of a decrease in morale at the fire department.

“I think when [2021] started, we were getting busy, and then everybody started getting word of, hey, this is what’s going on, people are hearing people leave, and then people started going down not feeling good, the morale kind of went down into the tanks. And it just kind of stayed there,” Witt said. “It didn’t seem like anything we could do could get out of the hole. They were trying to do several things, work with us and try to get it back up, but guys were super frustrated, and then we weren’t getting any help, and we’re up there pleading for everything, it just kind of stayed there.”

Schoon said the issue of morale isn’t just with the department, it is a nationwide issue as well.

“It's not only EMS, it's not only nurses, because there's a shortage people are working more, they're getting more stressed which affects the day-to-day attitudes and the happiness of the job,” Schoon said. “Then you have the pressures we've had lately with having turnover because people are going to easier, higher-paid jobs, and when we have turnover it creates more forced overtime. People have to spend a lot of time here and not at home with their family, and they're not happy about it.”

As far as solutions to the issues, Schoon said negotiations between the city and union on amending their current contract, which goes until 2024, to resolve some of the issues haven’t found a “middle ground” as of yet, but that there was an offer recently he was hopeful about. Schoon said the department and the city have to “figure out” the wage issue, and said the city has engaged with the townships they serve – Park, Fabius, Lockport and Flowerfield – to see how they can work together to solve the wage issue and other issues in the department.

“I don't know what's going to end up happening, and we're working on the numbers of what we need. It's hard to say for sure,” Schoon said.

Despite the issues with the department, however, the Local 3102 representatives said the TRFD will still give its “100 percent best” to the job every day, with Witt adding that the department hasn’t missed a call “that I can think of.”

“No matter what’s going on, we’ll answer the call and be there for the people,” Witt said.

Abbate said he hopes to see comparable wages for the department in the near future.

“My goal is to have wages that are comparable to surrounding departments and the lessening of overtime. Every one of our members deserve to make a livable wage and spend time with their family,” Abbate said. “Nobody deserves to have to go work at Beacon to make ends meet. What this is really about is being competitive with our neighbors. If you’re looking for a small-town department, why would anybody take a 30 percent pay cut to do more work? it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I assume people looking for a job would think that too.”

Schoon said he hopes to fill the last spots to get back to a full staff at the department, and hopes to split up the workload of the medics once that happens. Overall, he said the department is still strong despite the challenges.

“Even throughout these times, we are still one of the strongest departments we've ever been. The replacements we've had have worked out great, and we've put on some really good guys to replace the really good guys that left,” Schoon said. “So, we're doing alright and holding our own, but if we can get a good plan going with the guys and maintaining what we have and filling that last spot, I look forward to a bright future here.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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